One of the curious things about human nature is that people (and I mean me) can be a bit slow to learn, despite being taught the same lesson time and time again. One of the lessons I keep having concerns the expectation trap. This is the way that expectations, even positive, seem to interfere with performance.

The expectation trap

My first international race was a slalom in Austria in 1983 at the start of a 3 month European trip that took in the Merano worlds and probably nine or ten other events. There was no opportunity for open practice on the river, so it was straight into racing. With no real idea of the strength of the field, no previous experience of the water or the gate combinations, I just got on and paddled. It was to be my best run and competitive result of the whole season. It also laid an expectation of what I “should” be able to do, and sure enough on my second run I tried too hard and made mistakes. There have been plenty of times since then when I’ve experienced the same pattern: good performances come when I just turn up and race. Poor runs often come when I assume I can achieve a certain level of performance.

Last weekend, 32 years after my European debut I raced in two premier slaloms at Lee Valley. As the first race of the season I came in without expectations, although after a solid winter’s training I was optimistic. The old pattern repeated itself, with the first of my four competitive runs being my best of the weekend, and my best premier result so far (34th, exactly midfield). And despite knowing how important it is to stay focused in the present, and just to treat each run as it comes, I was aware that my mind was throwing all sorts of interfering thoughts my way after a good run: “You’ve got this cracked, it’s going to be a great season”, “so if I finished 34th today, I should be able to do the same or better tomorrow and that will mean good points for my ranking”, “great, I beat ….”

Thoughts like these are driven by the ego, the part of our personality that is concerned with survival. The ego is constantly seeking re-assurance and does this by making comparisons with others and by trying to forecast the future – both attempts to answer the fears of “what if I’m not good enough?” And “what will people think about me?” While we wouldn’t survive without an ego, it also needs to be managed. I’m getting much better at  staying mindful and just letting these ego thoughts pass by, but it still takes constant attention.

Technique under pressure

I’ve been working a lot over the winter on upstream gates, largely by learning how to do “sweep ups”, a much faster but riskier technique than using a conventional bow rudder. This involves taking a much higher line into the eddy then leaning back to “neck” the gate and travel a shorter line down the course. Thanks to some great coaching from Huw Swetnum I’ve made progress, and in training sessions I’ve been pulling off some speedy break outs. But there’s nothing like being confronted with a race environment to discover how secure a new technique really is. I discovered that it still needs work, both technically to get more consistent, and psychologically to develop the confidence to apply the new skills in a race. I noticed this on the first day of racing, when I thought I was a little conservative on some of the break outs. So on Sunday I was determined to approach the course confidently and take on more attacking lines on the upstream gates, and also take a direct route on a crunch move across a stopper at “the oval”. My first run went pretty much to plan and was clean until the last gate, a tricky downstream in an eddy. I knew I hit it, but didn’t realise till later that I’d actually incurred a 50 second penalty. Another reminder of an old lesson, this time about staying fully focused and committed right to the finish!

What’s possible?

The races continue in Grandtully, Scotland this weekend. I’m looking forward to the road trip and a few days on a natural river in a beautiful part of the world. I’m grateful to still be able to get on a start line for the next two races, four race runs. Four more opportunities to stay focused in the moment through 20 gates. Four more opportunities to test my technique and fitness. Four more opportunities to enjoy the buzz of paddling at speed through whitewater. Four more opportunities to see what’s possible.

There’s much more on the motivation, mental skills and the psychology of paddling in my book In the Flow. Details here